OLYMPIA - Whatcom County will get a fourth superior court judge as early as 2015, after Gov. Jay Inslee signs a bill approved Wednesday, April 17, by the state House.
The judge could be seated as early as January 2015, but the courthouse must undergo a roughly $1 million renovation first, county Executive Jack Louws said.
A bill authorizing the judge passed the House 91-6 with "very little controversy," said Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, the bill's House sponsor.
"I don't anticipate any problems (getting the governor to sign the bill), but I don't speak for the governor, either," she said.
Wednesday was the last day to pass bills not related to the state budget. The bill, SB 5052, passed the Senate 48-1 on Jan. 30.
The state and county each pay half the salary of superior court judges, who will earn slightly more than $150,000 in 2015. The state pays for benefits, and the county pays all associated expenses, including court staff.
The biggest immediate expense will be the renovation of the courthouse at 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham. The building will get a new courtroom, judge's chambers, space for support staff and holding areas for defendants.
Louws will ask the council to fund the remodel. He said money is available, including in an unexpectedly large cash balance.
"We could use that one-time additional money for this," Louws said. "We have a number of options."
County officials have been planning for a fourth judge for a decade. The county has had three superior court judges since 1972. Since then the county population has tripled, according to a prepared statement by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, the bill's Senate sponsor.
"In passing Senate Bill 5052, the Legislature recognized the fact that Whatcom County has been long overdue for a fourth judge," Ericksen's statement said.
Cases in superior court - especially civil cases - have been delayed because judges weren't always available when cases were ready to be heard, Judge Charles Snyder said.
"I think it's going to make a big difference," Snyder said. "We really do have an issue trying to get civil cases out because of the criminal caseload."
Superior courts handle civil and family cases, felony and juvenile crimes, and involuntary mental commitments.
Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2298.